YONGE STREET STANDOFF

In Features /

By Karon Liu

The World of Posters is sandwiched between a gaudy strip club and Ryerson’s dreams. To the north of the half-poster, half-head shop is the Zanzibar — the last icon of old Yonge Street, which was once littered with rub-ntugs and porn shops. To the south is a hollowedout former Future Shop and Sam the Record Man, both waiting to be transformed into Ryerson’s new Yonge Street: a district that hopes to mix commercial property with higher education.

So when Don Ajith, the 16-year owner of World of Posters, discovers his business is on a list of properties the school would like to take over, he’s happy to offer his opinion about Ryerson’s ambitions. “I think it’s the stupidest idea ever,” he says, flipping through a Master Plan presentation book. Inside is a map of Yonge Street with the properties Ryerson might one day acquire highlighted in yellow. Every piece of land on the east side of Yonge Street from Gerrard to College is included. “Why do you want the whole world?” Ajith says. “They have no brains. Yonge Street is a business, not for students. They can stay behind Sam’s, which they shouldn’t have bought in the first place.”

Ajith isn’t the only member of the community who has been caught off guard by the school’s plan to reinvent itself and the neighbourhood. Arron Barberian, an influential community leader and owner of Barberian’s Steakhouse, is disappointed he wasn’t called by the planners during the two-year planning process.

Now, he’s emerging as the first public critic of the plan.

“My family’s been here since 1959 and we kind of sensed at a very grassroots level what makes this neighbourhood successful and what kind of shortcomings there are,” he said. “So if you were to say, ‘what we need more of,’ we don’t necessarily need more of a university.”

Yet at a board of governors meeting on March 31, Ryerson rubber-stamped a plan that will bring a whole lot of university to the neighbourhood. The school wants to transform the campus into a city builder by making the area a student district. The community, however, is divided on the idea, with some accusing the school of not consulting them, and others fearing that Ryerson will disrupt ongoing attempts to improve Toronto’s main street and hurt business.

The Yonge Street offensive began in January when Ryerson nabbed the Sam the Record Man and Future Shop sites for a total of $28 million.

This summer, the school hopes to demolish both and start building a library extension. Since he arrived in 2005, this has been Levy’s dream.

Unlike the University of Toronto or York University, expanding in the heart of downtown provides a unique dilemma for Ryerson. U of T’s St. George Campus has about two-and-a-half times the student population as Ryerson but about seven times the land. York University’s student population is one-and-a-half times bigger than Ryerson but its campus is 17 times larger.

With enrolment consistently exceeding Ryerson’s expectations — the school took in an extra 500 students last year — the need to buy as much land as possible has grown, along with a desire to boost the school’s prominence.

One model the Master Plan will try to emulate is Montreal’s Concordia University. The school embarked on its own redevelopment a decade ago, and its Master Space Development Program is expected to be finished in 2010.

Peter Bolla, associate vice-president of facilities management at Concordia, said people had trouble pinpointing the location of the campus because the school’s buildings were scattered all over the city and had no unifying look. So the school built a 15-story business building to boost its brand in the city. It is currently renovating a hospital and a donated bank tower.

“I think it’s important that the school dominates,” Bolla said. “You have to have a presence on the street and make sure that it’s a university building first with a commercial section on the bottom instead of the other way around. You have to design it so the university has a good presence at the street level as well.”

This was exactly the problem that Ryerson encountered when it attempted to mix retail and commercial space in the business building at the corner of Bay and Dundas. Several architects, including Master Planners KPMB, criticized the development because the school is overshadowed by the big Best Buy and Canadian Tire stores on the main floor.

“I can tell the people in the business school really appreciate the facilities … but in terms of presence in the city, I don’t think there’s any doubt that Ryerson could in the future improve on its role in shaping the image and experience,” said urban planner Ken Greenberg, one of Ryerson’s consultants on the Master Plan. “I think it’s fair to say Ryerson can do a lot more in the future.”

While Levy believes that the school can do all this without disturbing the balance of retail on Yonge Street, the two leading figures of the street’s last major development argue that Ryerson is putting its own interests ahead of the neighbourhood’s.

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Tucked behind the bright lights of Yonge Street and on to a side street where bistros and pubs cater to the area’s more discriminating customers, Arron Barberian is getting his steakhouse ready an hour before it opens at noon. He’s meticulous about the place settings and ensures every wine glass is spotless, an attention to detail that was needed 10 years ago when he turned one of the city’s most dangerous intersections into a shopping destination.

Barberian was tired of the dozens of dollar stores and the rub-n-tug parlours that once lined Yonge Street from Queen to College. On a summer night in 1993, he and longtime friend Bob Sniderman — owner of the Senator Restaurant, and whose father, Sam, owned the iconic Sam the Record Man — were standing around the Yonge- Dundas intersection and noticed the area was a desolate wasteland. As a result, they created the Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Area (then known as the Yonge Street Business and Residents’ Association) in 1995.

In November the duo met with City Hall and the two teams formally joined forces in March 1996. Nine months later they announced a formal plan to save Yonge-Dundas by bringing in big-name stores as well as building public spaces and entertainment complexes. The BIA hired Ron Soskolne, Toronto’s former chief city planner and a veteran of New York’s Times Square redevelopment, as the project’s general consultant.

The first step in revitalizing the area was to get rid of the seedy stores. He recommended that the city expropriate the properties (which involved forcing the owners to sell to the City) and create a public square at the intersection. In 1999, despite a $1.7 million campaign by 12 business owners to save their stores, the City took over the properties as scheduled, and started building Metropolis (now Toronto Life Square), a massive entertainment complex.

A decade later, Barberian is still a prominent figure in the community. He’s the chair of the BIA and has close contacts with Ryerson and all the businesses in the area. He had his first major meeting with the school about the Master Plan 14 months ago and has been casually talking to Ryerson, but he’s surprised that he’s never had a formal sit down with the Master Planners.

“Some of us never had a one-to-one sit down with the planners,” he said. “As the visionary for the modern redevelopment, the post-Eaton Centre neighbourhood, as somebody who has everybody’s phone number and can talk to any business and convince them it’s a good thing or bad thing, I’m a little bit surprised I didn’t get that call.”

And when he attended one of the initial meetings, he felt disconnected from the planners.

“I think that they’ve held their cards a little too close to the vest during the whole process,” said Barberian. “I think that some of the public consultations felt like decisions [that] have already been made and we’re just letting you know instead of asking you.” Sosklone, a current member of the BIA who also served as the university’s consultant during the construction of Ryerson’s business building, is concerned that the school’s Master Plan could derail the improvements to the neighbourhood that he kick-started with the Metropolis project.

He said when property owners see Ryerson’s plans, which mark almost every building on Yonge Street between Gould and Gerrard as a potential development site, they assume that Ryerson will take them over within five years.

“It’s a matter of creating the uncertainty on the street,” he said. “If they see Ryerson is assembling and expropriating land they’ll think, well, we’re not going to lease the store to a longterm user. We’re just going to put book clearance centres and shoe-clearance centres, and nasty [stores] that plagued Yonge Street for so long.”

Barberian agrees, adding that by announcing what buildings they want so early, the school risks pushing property values up and creating a sense of paranoia among the businesses.

“Pretend you’re a landlord and there’s a square over your property,” he said.

“They say in five years they’re going to take over your property. All of a sudden you’ve got a tenant who’s nervous because they have a 10-year lease.”

In the end, the BIA is supportive of the Master Plan as long as the university chooses the right retailers and minimizes the disruption to one of the country’s busiest areas. And Levy says he understands.

“I don’t think you can improve [the neighbourhood] by essentially dropping down an institutional building on Yonge Street,” he said. “That’s the intersection of the city and as a university you have to recognize that it has to provide the things that the city needs and thus retail becomes really important.”

In the weeks following Levy’s appointment as president in 2005, he contacted the Downtown Yonge BIA expressing interest in having a presence on Yonge Street. James Robinson, executive director of the BIA for the past seven years, wants to make sure the university doesn’t overshadow the commercial hub.

“We’ve also cautioned Ryerson in a way that if it wants to establish the Sam the Record Man site as a place of local identity, they have to get retailers that won’t be found anywhere else in Toronto,” he said.

Sosklone remembers how construction for Toronto Life Square was delayed for 10 years and had severly disrupted traffic.

He hopes it won’t happen again when the school starts building. Barberian, meanwhile, is still unsure if moving on to Yonge Street is the best move for Ryerson.

“When some of your students look back and think why they weren’t successful at Ryerson, it may be because of that clutter of being able to lose yourself in the Eaton Centre,” he said.

“As a person looking back into their education, I’m not so sure a university and a mall work together,” said Barberian. “But at the end of the day it is a fact and it’s a urban university with mixeduse properties, and I hope it works.”

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